Leveson hearings: can a ‘blind and unreasoning’ or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?
[ Addendum, 23 February:
Although The Guardian has unquestionably deleted courteous posts about proposals for press reform and media evolution from the Comment-is-free section of its site, as recorded on this blog on 7 November and 15 November, I might owe that newspaper an apology for suggesting in the entry below that its moderators broke links to post-gutenberg.com posted on its site in January. Please see the footnote** for details. ]
A remarkable statement went unnoticed by the few commentators on a morning of superb theatre at the Leveson hearings on press practices, culture and ethics in Britain on 31 January.
As noted earlier on this blog, press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry has been scant. It has focused on tabloid phone-hacking and emphasised paeans to press freedom by well-known witnesses, but under-reported criticism of the media (for instance, the excoriating but mostly well-founded testimony of the former journalist and prime ministerial communications adviser Alastair Campbell.)
Giving evidence last week, Christopher Meyer, the former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission – a body roundly criticised for being too close to newspaper editors to handle accusations against them objectively — said in a fleeting aside that the press is free to be partisan in a democracy. He said that as if stating a self-evident truth, accepted as such. I could not find any record of his remark in the transcript of the proceedings, but there was this exchange between the ex-chairman and his surgically incisive interrogator, Robert Jay QC.
Q: … I think the point you’re making there is that the press is free to comment and be partisan and it’s not the role of the PCC in a democracy to seek to curb that democratic activity?
A: Yeah, that’s fair enough.
That could stand as a marker for the extent of the shift from the last century’s ideal of a neutral press to one in which the media openly take sides – or, as The Economist put it last July, are becoming ‘more opinionated, polarised and partisan’. Not the faintest note of doubt intruded on the former PCC chairman’s declaration or confirmation of his position on partisanship, even though media bias is not what the public wants, if we can take as representative the 73 per cent of 2,700-odd Economist readers who have so far voted ‘yes’ in answer to the question, ‘Should news organisations always remain impartial?’. Bias has rightly been worrying experts like this political scientist, who asked in 2010 on ‘a plain blog about politics‘:
Will we have a robust, vigorous, and almost completely partisan press? Will there still be a place for neutrality? How will this play out for state and local politics? What kinds of norms will the partisan press develop?
Some of us who have noticed the British and American press grow more aggressively one-sided in recent years cannot help wondering whether that has meant getting fewer of the objective reports and facts that a democracy needs to make good decisions about policies and politicians.
Partisanship is disturbing in itself, when you consider the dictionary definition of ‘partisan’ as ‘adherent, esp. a blind or unreasoning adherent’ (Chambers, 2006). How can it be consistent with this classic list of guidelines for journalists doing their ‘duty of providing the people with the information they need to be free and self-governing’ – from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism:
1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.
3. Its essence is discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting, and relevant.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
Some of us have noticed ways in which partisan has begun to mean punitive – as in censoring healthy disagreement and opposition.
If we accept that a newspaper has the right to push a particular agenda at us, does that give it the right to stifle dissent about that agenda – from, for instance, citizen journalists, which all of us become when we react to articles in the comments sections of the online press? Moderators at online sites attached to famously liberal and left-wing mastheads unhesitatingly delete comments that challenge the biases of those newspapers, even when phrased cautiously and politely. (See ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’)
There is proof that I am not alone in wondering about this in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Media democracy’ – a concept that elicited a curious response from an editor at the New York Times, mentioned in this spot last month.
The concept of “democratizing the media” has no real meaning within the terms of political discourse in Western society. In fact, the phrase has a paradoxical or even vaguely subversive ring to it. Citizen participation would be considered an infringement on freedom of the press, a blow struck against the independence of the media that would distort the mission they have undertaken to inform the public without fear or favor… this is because the general public must be reduced to its traditional apathy and obedience, and frightened away from the arena of political debate and action.
Addressing the Alpach Technology Forum in Germany last August, William Dutton, the outgoing director of the Oxford Internet Institute, identified ‘Journalists and the Mass Media – imitating, co-opting, competing,’ as one collective enemy of the 5th Estate, which includes citizen-journalists. (See ‘The Future of the Internet for Networked Individuals of the Fifth Estate’.)
If not for Justice Leveson and his supremely necessary investigation, I might have been depressed by the results that came up when I typed into search boxes the once-hallowed phrase, ‘Without fear or favour’. It encapsulated a consensus among the most admirable practitioners of journalism about the importance of rising above partisanship. When I used the English spelling of the word ‘favour’, the first Google results page brought up scarcely any links to sites unconnected with Africa, New Zealand, Australia or Malaysia. With American spelling, dropping the ‘u’, the first page of findings did supply links to sites related to the U. S., but too few of them led to anyone expressing the outrage about the increasingly hollow sound of those words that I had hoped to see.
A press that no longer sees neutrality as essential to democracy in the west would explain why some of us have been given our first visceral impressions of what samizdat resistance under the old Soviet Union felt like, as commenters repeatedly censored – improbably enough – by The Guardian, a standard-bearer for liberalism.
In the last two weeks, every link to this site posted in comments there has been broken either by Guardian moderators or by some profoundly mysterious line of rogue code in the newspaper’s software. (Anyone curious enough to run a paranoia test can search on ‘CheryllBarron’ beneath Peter Guillam’s contribution, ‘The capitalism debate is anaemic – it must dig deeper‘. Compare the results from pasting the URLs I have posted there into your own browser with clicking on the same URLs on the Guardian page – which only leads to variations of ‘Oops! Page not found’.)
‘Censor’ is a word that came to us from the Roman Empire – although it mainly alluded to a lofty being entrusted with conducting the census and guarding public morality. ‘Censorship’ was a novelty that the Gutenberg press spawned. As the historian John Hale has explained,
It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.
By  the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.
Who could have predicted a punitive partisan press being allowed – so far – to get away with silencing democratic opposition in our own media revolution, five centuries later?
** Links to post-gutenberg.com yielding a ‘not found’ notice
Since I reported on what appeared to be a novel form of censorship, I have discovered the identical problem on this WordPress site. Something has been – inconsistently – inserting an extra ‘http’into texts of mine where there should be only one in each URL, with results like this (the unwanted duplicate is highlighted in bold):
This curious repetition disables the link. A technical support specialist at WordPress has so far been unable to trace the trouble to its source – or explain it.
Until the investigation is concluded, I feel I owe The Guardian the benefit of the doubt – and an apology for an unjust accusation.
I hope to know more soon.